Real-world impact is a major goal for many graduate students and postdocs at MIT. Helping young researchers reach that goal is the idea behind MIT linQ, says Martha Gray SM ’81, PhD ’86, the J. W. Kieckhefer Professor of Health Sciences and Technology and a professor of electrical engineering and computer science. The initiative’s three programs—Catalyst, IMPACT, and IDEA2 Global—match early career biomedical researchers with interdisciplinary mentors from universities, medicine, business, and industry to help them orient their research toward application. Spectrum asked Gray, director of MIT linQ, how the initiative works and what it has to teach all scientists.
How do the linQ programs work?
MG: The overarching objective is to change how people think and work so we can accelerate and heighten the impact of their research on health. Whether the fellows are just starting on a project or heavily involved in one, we ask them to consider: What do you do, and why is it important? Who’s going to care, why are they going to care, and how is it going to ultimately benefit other researchers or patients? In Catalyst, a multiyear program, the fellows start from the very beginning: They conceive and execute new research projects with the potential for specific impacts. In IMPACT and IDEA2 Global, each a semester in length, fellows start with existing projects and more deeply explore potential impacts. IMPACT is geared for Bostonarea biomedical researchers. IDEA2 Global works with teams of innovators from around the world.
In all programs, participants work iteratively, supported by regular mentoring. All participants are required to talk with people who are not normally in their “inner circle,” including experts and stakeholders. For most trainees, this experience is very different from what happens in a traditional research lab, where they interact with others who share similar conceptual frameworks.
How does this approach change the trajectory of their work?
MG: In Catalyst, fellows usually end up working in areas unrelated to their prior work. This happens because they focus on impact, not area, and are not constrained by a specific lab or institution. In IMPACT, we find that many of the trainees rethink the direction of their research, and in some cases actually alter their research path, despite the fact that most of these projects are already peer-reviewed, funded, and ongoing. For example, an IMPACT fellow was designing a diagnostic test based on a molecular pathway that she discovered to be involved in Lyme disease. By talking to others as part of the process, she figured out that using the same pathway as the basis for a new therapeutic drug would address a more pressing clinical need, and she was successful in securing new grant funding based on this.
What’s the most valuable takeaway from linQ for early researchers?
MG: They’re able to critically assess what happens beyond the particular science they’re doing now and think ahead to what would this mean in 3, 5, or 10 years—and ask if that’s the kind of significance they want. It also gets them out of their comfort zone in terms of how they communicate their work and with whom they communicate. That is a really important professional skill.
What have you and other linQ mentors learned?
MG: We’ve discovered that having a real mix of individuals work together makes them unconstrained about the kinds of problems they consider, how they think about the problems, and directions they go. I think this lack of constraint is really empowering. The other really interesting thing is what the faculty mentors themselves gain—we call it 360-degree learning. Many of them report to us anecdotally that they do things differently in their labs as a result of participating.